Court reporting


Be aware tweeting allowed in some courtrooms but not others

This is another in a series of articles by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press covering legal issues that affect journalists. RCFP’s McCormick Legal Fellow Jamie Schuman wrote this article.

George Zimmerman, right, stands with his attorneys, Mark O’Mara, left, and Don West, center, as they watch the jury enter the courtroom on the 17th day of Zimmerman’s trial in Seminole circuit court, Tuesday, July 2, 2013, in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman was eventually acquitted of second-degree murder in the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin. (AP Photo/Orlando Sentinel, Joe Burbank, Pool)

At George Zimmerman’s trial last summer, Orlando Sentinel reporter Rene Stutzman wrote traditional stories but also tweeted courtroom highlights sometimes more than 50 times a day.

“It provided pieces of information to followers of Twitter who wouldn’t otherwise be looking at more conventional news sources, like reading the newspaper or watching an evening newscast,” Stutzman said.

While the circuit court in Seminole County, Florida, let reporters use Twitter to cover the Trayvon Martin murder trial, many judges ban courtroom tweets. They say the practice can distract people at hearings or impede the defendant’s right to a fair trial. But as tweeting becomes more routine across newsrooms, many crime reporters want to use the technology in courtrooms, too.

“Gone are the days when we had the luxury of waiting until 9 p.m. to provide a single story for the print product,” said Henry Lee, crime reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. “Now we have deadlines that are around the clock.”

Many judges do not agree that courtroom tweets should be permitted. Federal courts, many of which do not allow laptops and cell phones in courtrooms, have been especially slow to let reporters tweet from hearings. Some state judges do not allow it, either.

Courts normally have policies that govern electronic devices, but those rules do not often provide definitive answers on whether Twitter is permitted. Each judge usually has the power to decide if and when social media is allowed in his or her courtroom.

At the state courthouse in Chicago, it’s a given that reporters can tweet from hearings except in high-profile cases, where judges sometimes place limits, said Chicago Sun-Times reporter Rummana Hussain. But Lee said in the nine Bay Area counties that he covers, most courtrooms frown on the practice.

A lawyer’s view on courtroom tweeting

Eric P. Robinson, co-director of the Press Law and Democracy Project at Louisiana State University, advises journalists to get permission before tweeting from the courtroom unless the judge has a clear policy on the matter.

“They should never just assume they can do it because that could just lead to trouble,” Robinson said. “You don’t want to be held in contempt.”

Robinson, who writes on courtroom tweeting for the Digital Media Law Project at Harvard University, recommends that journalists first ask the court’s public information officer for permission. If no one is in that job, reporters should contact the clerk for the entire court or for the individual judge on the case, he said.

Journalists should only reach out to the judge directly if they know him or her and if that practice is accepted in their community, Robinson said.

“The courts are all about procedure and protocol,” he said. “It increases your chances of getting what you want when you follow their way of doing things.”

If reporters get pushback, they should argue that courts have long been open to the public, and Twitter is the next step in that tradition, Robinson said. They also could stress that tweets will not distract others in the courtroom, and they could show “strength in numbers” by advocating with other journalists, he added.

A lawsuit, he said, is a last resort.

Stories from the field

Courts reporters say Twitter helps them beat the competition, provide snippets of color, and connect with audience members who live far away but have an interest in the case.

“It’s a marketing tool,” Stutzman said. “I’m trying to drive traffic to our website.”

Stutzman’s Zimmerman case tweets included descriptions of trial participants’ expressions, excerpts from closing remarks, updates on scheduling and pictures of protesters outside the court.

Court officials at the trial were initially hesitant to allow tweeting, but reached a compromise that let people do so on touch screens only, said Michelle Kennedy, public information officer at the 18th Judicial Circuit. That avoided the problem of noisy keyboards.

Hussain said it is sometimes helpful for reporters to go directly to the judge – especially if they know him – and explain what they want to do.

“Some judges are over 60 or over 70,” she said. “They might not necessarily know what Twitter is.”

For the trial in the murder of actress Jennifer Hudson’s family members, Hussain asked the judge about four times to lift his Twitter ban. He ultimately let reporters use the media from an overflow room only, but Hussain said she would sometimes tweet from inside the courtroom during recess.

Lee, of The Chronicle, can be even more brazen. If he sees competitors surreptitiously tweeting, he said he will put his iPhone under a folder and do the same. He also sometimes tries to sit in a “blind spot” where the sheriff’s deputy won’t see him, or hides behind a large person and tweets away.

“It’s like you’re angling for a good movie seat,” Lee said. “In my case, I’m maximizing my ability to tweet even if there is an official rule against that.”

Lee’s strategy seems to be working. In 2010, he published a book based largely on his live blog of an Oakland murder trial. The book, Presumed Dead: A True-Life Murder Mystery, uses many of the colorful tidbits that he captured in his posts a couple years earlier.

“A good reason I was able to write the book was because I was able to live blog from the courtroom in real time,” Lee said.

Related: Who owns your Twitter followers | Hyperlinking could help journalists in defamation lawsuits | How to use FOIA laws to find stories, deepen sourcing | How Courtney Love and U.S.’s first Twitter libel trial could impact journalists

Correction: An earlier version of this story had a different name for the Press Law and Democracy Project at LSU. Also, Eric P. Robinson did not write the Digital Media Law Project guide but rather writes on courtroom tweeting for the project. Read more

Scales of Justice sits in a courtroom.

How to cover a court trial: 6 tips for journalists

As newsrooms continue to contract, some media outlets have been criticized for their diminishing coverage of the courts, including high-profile trials. As journalists move to other beats or leave their newsrooms, their institutional knowledge about how to cover trials goes with them.

Here are six tips for writers who might be new to a courtroom, and what they should do before and after they get there.

Before you go to court:

1. Make friends with everyone.

Unless you have a law degree, it’s going to be hard to understand some cases by simply reading the complaints. You don’t want to be confused when you get into the courtroom.

Lawyers will happily fill in the blanks, and they’re not hard to track down. Their contact details are in court documents, dockets or law firms’ websites. There are also Internet databases that let you look up emails and phone numbers in California, New York, Florida, Texas, Illinois, and other states.

Many lawyers can’t officially speak for their clients, but they will happily gab about a lawsuit if they know their names won’t make the news. Ask them the highlights, including the obvious: Who is suing whom? What do they want? What laws do they claim were violated?

Parties in the case often change at the last minute before trial, so be sure to ask if anyone has settled or is near settlement.

If the lawyers in the case won’t talk, try the clerk, or — on rare occasion — the judge. The clerk or judge can mostly talk about what’s happened so far in the case and what’s coming up. If they decline to talk, many lawyers who aren’t involved in the lawsuit will be happy to explain it to you if you send them a complaint.

2. Expect the unexpected.

An unpredictable schedule is one of the biggest challenges in trial coverage, according to Malaika Fraley, who covers California courts for the Contra Costa Times.

Sometimes witnesses get delayed. Opening statements run long. A judge pushes off a date of testimony.

Other times, Fraley said in a phone interview, “I’m told a trial starts at 9 a.m., and then I get there and it’s five hours of jury instruction.”

The best and often only way to know what will happen is to be present in court, Fraley said. But if you can’t go, the easiest solution is to ask someone who was there — and don’t trust just one person to get it right, she added.

An alternative is checking online calendars, which many courts have. Judges also frequently keep paper calendars with the day’s schedule outside their courtrooms.

3. Know how you will file.

Internet access isn’t a sure thing if you’re on the road. When I covered the Apple-Samsung trial in San Jose, for example, several reporters and lawyers couldn’t use the court’s free WiFi because so many people tried to log on simultaneously. After the day’s testimony ended, I went to a nearby Starbucks to write on a seven-inch tablet. My battery threatened to die and I lost part of my article multiple times because the free coffee-shop Internet failed or my tablet froze.

Before a trial starts, look for quiet places to work after a hearing and whether they have Internet. Many courts have press rooms that reporters will unlock and share. If that fails and there’s no free WiFi nearby, find out if you can tether your phone’s data plan to a laptop. Your newsroom might also have a USB Internet dongle or be willing to spring for one.

When you get to court:

4. Arrive early.

If it’s a big trial, get there at least an hour early.

Parking can be a mess, and there will also be a security checkpoint, so leave any weapons at home.

The biggest problem, though, is finding a seat. Large trials can be like a Friday night at the movies, with people saving seats for five of their friends by laying down suit jackets or binders of documents. When that happens, reporters often wind up standing awkwardly for hours in an aisle or in the back with anyone else who arrived late.

5. Cut the jargon.

Most readers don’t need a play-by-play of what happens at trial. A lot of it is routine and, more importantly, the average reader won’t know or care about all the legal terms flying back and forth. But finding those strong, memorable quotes can be a chore. A lot of mileage can be found in quotes that answer the “why” questions — why did the judge deny a motion? Why are the plaintiffs so upset in a case?

Reporters often cover only opening and closing statements because the basic, straightforward facts will be summarized during those hearings. Though that sometimes gets you in trouble.

“Things like juror and judge reaction can be difficult or impossible to gauge unless you’re physically in the courtroom, even at the really boring moments where jurors, judges and even lawyers sometimes drift off,” Politico White House and courts reporter Josh Gerstein said via email.

6. Mind your electronics.

If you bring a computer, don’t waste the whole battery typing notes during court. Bring a notepad instead. In addition to saving power, everyone will be grateful for not having to hear the clickity-clack of a keyboard.

The same goes for phones: keep them off or at least put away. Editors sometimes ask reporters to send text-message updates during trial, but this should be kept to a minimum. Phones can distract you from finding good quotes, and you also might need one later to call a source or file a story.

Saul Sugarman is a San Francisco-based journalist who covers Northern California courts for a legal-affairs newspaper, the Daily Journal.

More resources: AP manual on covering courts | A journalist’s guide to U.S. federal courts

NewsU Training: On the Beat: Covering the Courts

Related: 6 tips for reporters tracking state legal cases | Why the Supreme Court should allow TV cameras in the courtroom Read more

Judges Gavel

6 tips for reporters tracking state legal cases

Newsrooms across the country have been hemorrhaging staff for more than a decade. They’ve had to cut back on major areas of coverage, including investigative reporting and another important beat: court reporting.

Today, reporters might be dispatched to cover big trials, but everyday lawsuits and court hearings are often overlooked. The courts can provide a rich source of daily stories as well as compelling narrative features, and it doesn’t take much time to keep tabs on them when you know what to do.

This piece offers six tips for tracking the legal cases you and your readers, listeners and viewers will want to know about. The tips focus on state courts because they’re often free; the federal courts make most cases available online, but they’re behind the PACER paywall. They can be tracked via Lexis Nexis, but that also costs money.

Check for new cases once a week.

Every state has its own court system, with courts in just about every county. Many have websites where you can look through the titles of cases that have been filed recently. Often, you can refine your queries by looking at only civil cases exceeding a particular amount of money, and cases filed within, say, the past week. Skim these to see whether any local public figures or businesses are suing someone — or being sued.

Some courts post these documents online. If they don’t, they’ll provide you with the names of the attorneys involved, many of whom will be happy to share the PDFs. Not all of them will turn out to be newsworthy, but it only takes a few minutes to skim through them to find out what the core dispute is about — and what kind of legal remedies, including money, the plaintiffs are asking for.

Look up important names regularly.

Those same court websites will also usually let you search for cases by the names of the people or businesses involved. If they do, make a list of local figures, including elected officials, top appointed leaders and others your newsroom follows, as well as important local businesses. Once a week or so, look up these names and see if they’re involved in any new litigation.

Of course, anyone can sue over just about anything, and even in civil cases, people are innocent until found guilty by a judge or a jury. People and companies with money are targets for litigation (just ask Google). Cities often face lawsuits when, for example, citizens are arrested and roughed up by police, or when someone is harmed in a public park. Those can make good follow-ups to articles about the underlying events.

Go with your gut.

If you look at enough court filings, after a while they all begin to look the same. The courts are full of lawsuits claiming that electronics companies price-fixed computer components, or that a drug company misled patients about the risks of a particular medication, so it’s tough to tease out the newsworthy ones.

Once in a while, a case title begs for further investigation, such as “United States v. Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins,” a case mentioned in Sarah Stillman’s recent feature for the New Yorker, “Taken.”

Other factors can also inspire you to dig, Stillman said in an email interview.

“Was a child involved? What was the magnitude of this person’s alleged loss? Does the complaint seem credible? Are there random, quirky things that just pique my interest for inexplicable reasons? All of these can be factors driving my decision to explore further, to pick up the phone or show up at an address,” she said. “After slogging through countless documents, you’re inevitably going to find a few that give you that ‘Wow, I have to pursue this’ feeling.”

Uncover the story behind the court documents.

Once in a while, a court filing — or a pattern of them — calls for a deeper look. Although “Taken” was inspired by one of Stillman’s prior articles, it also hinged on a pattern of perfunctory court filings that described assets seized by law-enforcement officials, as well as the lawsuits filed by those citizens. Those lawsuits provided a timeline, narrative structure and the names of potential sources who could put a face on the case, Stillman said.

“Nothing adds more to a story than actually enriching the material I’ve gleaned with the in-person, flesh-and-blood insights that come from spending time with the individuals involved,” she said.

Check out the court’s tentative rulings.

Many times, judges will post their tentative rulings the day before a hearing, so the attorneys in a case will be able to prepare for the judge’s thoughts or questions. These often provide basic information about the case and a quick snapshot of the judge’s thinking on whether the case should go forward.

If you see something that interests you, follow up the next day with the attorneys or the court clerk to see if the judge adopted the tentative; that’s the start of a news story. If you can spare the time, cover the hearing itself. (If your local court has a daily law-and-motion calendar, sit in for an hour and take notes on the arguments and rulings; something lively is likely to happen.)

Converse with people, search the Web.

New York Times Supreme Court reporter Adam Liptak uncovered the story of Shon Hopwood, the prisoner who wrote a fellow inmate’s Supreme Court petition, while chatting idly with a source on another topic entirely.

“After you’re done doing the story you think you’re doing, hang around and talk to people. You never know what tidbits will turn into a story later,” he told me by phone.

Likewise, Liptak said he’s uncovered some interesting cases simply by asking questions in the search box on legal-research sites. (From my own experience, Google works, too). Many will turn up public links to court filings — like an obscure Alabama court ruling that helped him set up his article on the Supreme Court’s recent repeal of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

“All you need is a little dab of color” when you search, Liptak said. “You already know what theme you want to pursue; you just need something to bring it to life.” Read more

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Kermit Gosnell verdict reached, but reporters told to turn off phones


The Philadelphia Inquirer announced just before 2:30 p.m. that a verdict had been reached in the trial of Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortion doctor accused of killing four babies born alive and an adult patient. Jurors have been deliberating for 10 days.

The paper announced on its Facebook page:

There is a verdict in the Gosnell case, court personnel have told Inquirer reporter John P. Martin. Extra sheriff’s deputies have been ordered into the courtroom, which is now locked. Reporters have been told to shut down their phones.

It’s unclear if requiring phones to be turned off is a routine occurrence. During the Jerry Sandusky trial, Judge John M. Cleland initially said phones had to be turned off, but later allowed them to be used for live-tweeting and live-blogging.

Inquirer reporter John P. Martin’s twitter feed is here. Read more


West Virginia judge’s suspension shows need for cameras in courtrooms

The National Law Journal | WSAZ

Poynter’s Al Tompkins has written for years about why courtrooms should allow cameras during proceedings. This week, some news from West Virginia helps make his case further:

The West Virginia Supreme Court on March 26 suspended Putnam County, W.Va., Family Court Judge William Watkins III without pay until December 2016, citing 24 violations of the state’s judicial ethics rules.

The justices said that, while in court, Watkins shouted profanities at people and threatened litigants. On one occasion, he called a woman seeking a protective order against her husband “stupid,” they said. He told her to shut up and criticized her for “shooting off [her] fat mouth about what happened.”

One YouTube video of Watkins yelling at litigants last May has racked up more than 200,000 views. Read more

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Supreme Court Building

Why the Supreme Court should allow TV cameras in the courtroom

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments about the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples. Yesterday, the court considered whether states can ban same-sex marriage.

You can read tweets about these historic hearings as the morning goes on, but the court will not let you watch them and access is limited. The craziest part of all, to me, is that America is not demanding a change.

Last year, the court decided the future of the nation’s health care system. In 2000, it effectively decided who would be president. The public can’t witness these decisions being made because, as Justices Stephen Breyer and Anthony Kennedy have suggested, people might not understand the complex work of the court, cameras could hurt the dynamics of the court, and someone might mug for the camera. Here’s a collection of justices explaining their thoughts on the issue.

In 2007, Justice Kennedy explained his reasoning to Congress:

“…But I don’t think it’s in the best interest of our institution…Our dynamic works. The discussions that the justices have with the attorneys during oral arguments is a splendid dynamic. If you introduce cameras, it is human nature for me to suspect that one of my colleagues is saying something for a soundbite. Please don’t introduce that insidious dynamic into what is now a collegial court. Our court works…We teach, by having no cameras, that we are different. We are judged by what we write. We are judged over a much longer term. We’re not judged by what we say. But, all in all, I think it would destroy a dynamic that is now really quite a splendid one and I don’t think we should take that chance.”

It reminds me of the Wicked Witch of the West saying to Dorothy: “These things must be done delicately or you hurt the spell.” I think justices — presumably some of the most honorable citizens among us — can control their behavior on the bench and resist the “insidious dynamic” that a camera might produce.

How did we get here?

The ban on photos and video has deep roots. In 1946, the court adopted Federal Rule 53, which states: “[e]xcept as otherwise provided by a statute or these rules, the court must not permit the taking of photographs in the courtroom during judicial proceedings or the broadcasting of judicial proceedings from the courtroom.” In 1972, the prohibition was expanded to TV.

In 1988, the court appointed the Ad Hoc Committee on Cameras in the Courtroom. Two years later, a special commission found that based on the two-year experiment, cameras should be allowed in federal civil courts.

In 1991, a few appellate courts launched a trial period with cameras allowed in. Then in 1994, the whole experiment died. In 2010, the federal Judicial Conference decided to try another experimental period with cameras in some courtrooms.

So, in 2011, 14 federal trial courts started another “pilot” project to see what happens when courts allow cameras in. How many of these pilot projects do we need? State courts have allowed cameras for decades. What is left to be learned?

We are living with a ban that was imposed even before most people had a television. The closest thing you get to being a live witness to the court’s proceedings is a steady stream of tweets. How’s that for a “splendid dynamic?”

What about the disruption?

Just how disruptive is a camera in a federal courtroom? Click here to see the video from one of those test cases — the United States v. Guam Waterworks Authority.

The case might not sound that interesting until you realize that it has to do with safe drinking water and what were alleged to be toxic discharges into the environment. I watched some of the USA v. Guam case and was impressed by the serious way the judge and lawyers handled themselves.

Justices Breyer and Kennedy have nothing to worry about in this court; nobody was acting like a fool mugging for the camera. This is at the heart of what courts do every day in America; they hear the people’s business. It’s not entertainment, like Judge Judy. It is a living civics lesson, and exactly what the public should be able to see.

Live coverage would give the people unfettered access to the words the justices say, and would make it harder for journalists to add their own spin. Live coverage would also help us visualize what’s going on much more than words can.

The Washington Post said that during the hearing Tuesday, several justices were “sharply questioning the premise” of California’s law. I would like to see and hear those “sharp” words.

The Post’s coverage included this passage:

“(Justice) Kagan asked whether, if procreation were such a vital interest, marriage licenses should not be issued to heterosexual couples over 55. (Washington lawyer Charles J.) Cooper replied that it was rare for both parties to a marriage to be infertile. Kagan retorted: “I assure you if both the man and the woman are over 55, there are not a lot of children coming out of that marriage.”

Wouldn’t you love to see that exchange on TV? A retort no less.

Justice Elena Kagan has said she likes the idea of having cameras in the court. In 2011, she told The Aspen Institute:

“I do think it would be a good idea…If everybody could see this, it would make people feel so good about this branch of government and how it’s operating…it’s such a shame actually that only 200 people a day can get to see it and then a bunch of other people can read about it. Because reading about it is not the same experience as actually seeing…”

A little good press wouldn’t hurt

The court could do itself some favors by allowing people to see how serious the justices are. Just this week, a new Pew survey shows the Supreme Court’s favorability rating is near a historic low.

The court should not concern itself with popularity polls, but it should concern itself with public trust. Nothing builds trust like openness. Nothing builds openness more than access. It is time to reverse a 41-year ban on cameras in courtrooms. Read more

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Why it’s so hard for SCOTUSblog to get Supreme Court press credentials

SCOTUSblog has gotten widespread attention in recent weeks for its accurate and detailed coverage of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act and the mistakes CNN and Fox News made while covering it.

Despite high reach and widespread use, SCOTUSblog it’s still not credentialed by the Court — and probably won’t be anytime soon. The issue renews attention to the limitations of press credentialing and raises important questions about whether the credentialing criteria for news sites needs to change.

Obtaining Court, White House and congressional credentials

SCOTUSblog reporter Lyle Denniston, who’s been referred to as an “icon of the Supreme Court press corps,” has a Court credential — but only because he also files reports for WBUR in Boston.

“We’ve raised the issue several times over the years, going back at least to the point Lyle started with us” in 2004, said SCOTUSblog Publisher Tom Goldstein in an email. “Right now, the Court tries to accommodate us by allowing Lyle to keep his hard pass from WBUR. But we can’t send anyone else into the press area to report on cases that Lyle isn’t covering for us.”

Credentialing will become a bigger problem when Denniston, who has been covering the Court for 54 years, retires someday; the blog wouldn’t be able to obtain the same kind of information and access that it now gets through him.

Even though the Court hasn’t credentialed SCOTUSblog, its staffers nevertheless use the blog. “We know both that the blog is widely used inside the Court (from our usage data) and that they suggest people use the blog to get information,” Goldstein said. On the day of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act, the site got 5.3 million page views — compared to the 30,000 daily visitors it usually gets.

Getting credentialed is a complicated process. Kathleen Arberg, public information officer at the Supreme Court, explained that only 26 journalists have permanent Court credentials, which enable them to come and go from the pressroom and the courtroom without having to get a new pass each day. Others get temporary day passes.

“To be considered for obtaining any credential at the Court we require an active press credential. We recognize White House and Congressional credentials as identification, which most reporters in town have,” Arberg told me.

SCOTUSblog doesn’t have White House or congressional credentials. To get a White House hard pass, which credentials journalists on an ongoing basis, a journalist must have congressional credentialing.

“Without clearing that first hurdle, they can’t get a White House pass,” said Don Gonyea, NPR correspondent and treasurer of the White House Correspondents’ Association. “I think it’s just one step to screen people out to make sure they’re serious.”

The problem is, congressional credentialing can be extremely hard for some sites to get.

Obstacles to getting congressional credentialing

The Senate Press Gallery issues congressional credentials and has very specific (and different) criteria for photographers, daily press, periodicals and TV and radio.

Goldstein said SCOTUSblog staff talked with the Senate Press Gallery a few years ago to see if the blog could get daily press credentials. “We were told by the Senate Gallery there is no point in [formally] applying,” said Goldstein, who co-founded the blog with his wife Amy Howe in 2002. He noted that the site still hasn’t applied for credentialing.

There are various reasons a news organization might not qualify for congressional credentialing.

Goldstein said his understanding from staff conversations with the Senate Press Gallery was that SCOTUSblog wouldn’t qualify because it doesn’t have broad-based advertising. It does, however, have a sponsor — Bloomberg Law. Advertising has come up as a credentialing issue in the past: Laura McGann wrote last year that the nonprofit site she used to edit — The Washington Independent — didn’t get congressional credentialing because it “was not chiefly supported by subscriptions or advertising.”

But in this case advertising may not be the issue. Senate Press Gallery Director Joe Keenan said the committee that oversees credentialing found in June 2010 that SCOTUSblog “failed to show that they were separate from the law firm.” Goldstein and Howe are both practicing lawyers who argue cases before the Supreme Court, and lawyers at their firm have written for their site.

The Senate Press Gallery’s criteria for daily press states that “The applicant must reside in the Washington, D.C., area, and must not be engaged in any lobbying or paid advocacy, advertising, publicity or promotion work for any individual, political party, corporation, organization, or agency of the U.S. government, or in prosecuting any claim before Congress or any federal government department, and will not do so while a member of the Daily Press Galleries.”

Keenan said SCOTUSblog is welcome to apply for credentialing, but noted that “if a practicing lawyer applied to us, there is almost no way they would be credentialed.” This isn’t to say, though, that all practicing lawyers and the sites they run are automatically disqualified. “We would figure out how they operate, how they get their money and whether the publication is a separate entity,” Keenan said. “And several other rules would come into play.”

Goldstein said he doesn’t see why working for a law firm would be an issue in SCOTUSblog’s case.

“That wouldn’t make any sense as applied to us, because we don’t do any lobbying work,” he said. “It certainly wasn’t my understanding, because if that had been told to me, I would have just said it wasn’t true.”

When credentialing daily press, the Gallery takes both a journalist and her publication into consideration. But a journalist can be indirectly penalized if her site doesn’t qualify for credentialing. “We wouldn’t credential them if the publication doesn’t qualify, and they work for the publication,” Keenan said.

So, if Denniston were to retire from WBUR, he would lose his credential, and since SCOTUSblog is uncredentialed, he would lose his Supreme Court access. If Denniston were simply unavailable to cover the Supreme Court for any reason, SCOTUSblog would not have access without him.

Goldstein told Forbes earlier this week that: “If we were ever to find ourselves without a credentialed reporter, then we would sue, if the Court was still unwilling to change its position.”

Modifying the credentialing process for Fifth Estaters

According to Keenan, the credentialing criteria for daily publications was last updated in 2002. Before that, the rules had been the same since around 1954. “As things change … we keep trying to evolve,” Keenan said. Some blogs have been credentialed in recent years, including The Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo and The Daily Caller.

As the Fifth Estate grows, it wouldn’t be surprising if more practicing lawyers were to start news sites like SCOTUSblog. Ideally, the Senate Press Gallery would consider re-evaluating its criteria and credential such sites that have a track record of good ethics and quality journalism, as SCOTUSblog has.

In his piece about mistakes that CNN and Fox News made while covering the Court’s recent ruling, Goldstein described SCOTUSblog’s role journalism’s future: “I feel that we showed that a specialized ‘vertical’ — a deep team with focused expertise — can contribute to reporting.”

That’s true. But for now, that’s unfortunately not enough to get credentialed. Read more


Abrams warned of media mistakes before Supreme Court ruling

ABC News Legal Analyst Dan Abrams expected that news organizations might incorrectly interpret the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act.

“Beware of #media mistakes on #ACA ruling,” he tweeted at 7 a.m. this morning. “I remember how many got it wrong on Bush v. Gore.”

Abrams was one of the first reporters to interpret the Gore v. Bush ruling correctly.

“I remember not knowing how much everyone else had screwed it up during Gore v. Bush until after the fact because there wasn’t social media and there wasn’t the level of accountability that there is today,” Abrams said in a phone interview. “There were just a few articles after the fact analyzing the coverage.”

CNN and Fox News both incorrectly reported that the individual mandate was struck down, causing confusion over what the Supreme Court had actually ruled and an uproar on Twitter, including a “Dewey Defeats Truman 2.0” meme.

Abrams said he thinks journalists are good at covering politics but struggle when covering policy and Supreme Court opinions. The rulings can be difficult to interpret, particularly for reporters who aren’t used to covering the Court on a regular basis and who don’t have a legal background.

CNN Congressional Correspondent Kate Bolduan — who reported on air incorrectly that the mandate had been struck down — has covered Supreme Court rulings in the past, but it’s not her beat as it is for NPR’s Nina Totenberg and The New York Times’ Adam Liptak, who is a lawyer.

Abrams said there are steps journalists can take when covering Supreme Court rulings to reduce the risk of inaccuracy. Most importantly, he said, journalists should quote from the opinion rather than making declarative statements about what they think it means.

We all get things wrong sometimes,” he said. “But when you have a ruling in your hand, which you can use, there really isn’t any reason to get the fundamentals and the heart of the opinion absolutely wrong.”

This is especially true when offering initial reports about the ruling, he said. As you continue your reporting, you can rely more on your own language and draw conclusions.

Abrams also suggests that reporters be open to admitting what they don’t know. He was reminded of this while talking about the ruling on “The View” this morning. When asked whether any of the provisions had been struck down, Abrams admitted that he hadn’t yet read the entire 193-page opinion and didn’t give a declarative answer.

While covering the ruling, SCOTUSblog took a similar approach, saying: “It’s very complicated, so we’re still figuring it out.”

The New York Times also took time to get the information right. In a blog post, Washington Bureau Chief David Leonhardt wrote: “We plan to tell the readers what the ruling means the moment that we feel comfortable with its basic meaning.” Establishing this understanding ahead of time can relieve at least some pressure within the newsroom, and it lets readers know that you’re committed to giving them accurate information as quickly as possible.

Sometimes we need to slow down — especially when we want to be first. Digital First Media’s Jim Brady put it well after journalists spread false reports of Joe Paterno’s death:

“If you’re right and first, no one remembers. If you’re first and wrong, everyone remembers.”

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CNN issues correction, Fox issues statement on Supreme Court reporting mistakes

The ruling has come down: Both CNN and Fox badly bungled their reporting of today’s landmark Supreme Court opinion on healthcare. And both organizations have taken very different routes to correcting their mistakes.

Here’s Fox’s correction, via Mediaite:

We gave our viewers the news as it happened. When Justice Roberts said, and we read, that the mandate was not valid under the Commerce clause, we reported it. Bill Hemmer even added, be patient as we work through this. Then when we heard and read, that the mandate could be upheld under the government’s power to tax, we reported that as well—all within two minutes.

By contrast, one other cable network was unable to get their Supreme Court reporter to the camera, and said as much. Another said it was a big setback for the President. Fox reported the facts, as they came in.

And here’s CNN’s:

In his opinion, Chief Justice Roberts initially said that the individual mandate was not a valid exercise of Congressional power under the Commerce Clause. CNN reported that fact, but then wrongly reported that therefore the court struck down the mandate as unconstitutional. However, that was not the whole of the Court’s ruling. CNN regrets that it didn’t wait to report out the full and complete opinion regarding the mandate. We made a correction within a few minutes and apologize for the error.

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Who was first with healthcare ruling depends on where you were looking

Forget the war going on between AP, CNN and Fox over the latter outlets’ botched announcement of Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling — a much more important battle rages in the mediasphere.

On Wednesday, SCOTUSblog reporter Lyle Denniston told The Washington Post’s Sarah Kliff that “our number one ambition is to beat everybody” with news of the ruling. SCOTUSblog’s publisher, Tom Goldstein, said his ambition was to beat AP:

“The TV people out front literally won’t have it for about two minutes,” SCOTUSblog publisher and co-founder Tom Goldstein said. “After they hand it to Lyle, I expect 25 seconds after that, we’ll have it on the live blog. I would be surprised if the Associated Press can beat us.”

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